Oregon Lists Southern Resident Orcas as Endangered, Adopts Survival Guidelines

Image: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Southern Resident orca whales, whose numbers have dwindled to 75, are now listed as endangered under Oregon’s Endangered Species Act.

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission on Feb. 16 voted unanimously for the listing, saying the orcas’ reproductive potential is in danger due to their small population size, inbreeding and other issues.

Scarcity of prey, especially Chinook salmon, which makes up the bulk of their diet, plus sound and vessel disturbance and exposure to high levels of contaminants were cited as primary reasons for the decline.

The Oregon coast is an important travel corridor for Southern Resident orcas in the K and L pods, with the area near the Columbia River mouth serving as a foraging hotspot. Oregon’s coastal waters were federally designated as critical habitat in 2021.

The commission adopted survival guidelines for Southern Resident orcas, as required under the state’s Endangered Species Act. The guidelines direct relevant state agencies to further monitor and address pollutants, especially those posing the highest risk for Southern Resident orcas and their prey.

The guidelines also call for increased boater education on current federal efforts to reduce vessel and noise disturbance, enhanced hatchery Chinook salmon production if capacity and funding exists and increased work to prevent oil and other hazardous material spills.

The commission’s action comes in the wake of a statement from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) that an estimated 28,117 salmon, including 26,273 Chinooks, were caught and discarded as bycatch in the groundfish trawl fishery off the coast of British Columbia during the 2022-23 groundfish trawl fishery.

According to the DFO report issued Jan. 22, over 20,000 Chinooks were likely thrown overboard, and another 3,700 Chinooks landed and discarded as waste.

Tara Brock, Pacific counsel for Oceana, an international advocacy entity focused on ocean conservation, applauded the commission’s decision. 

“If we can rebuild salmon numbers and reduce ocean pollution and noise, Southern Residents stand a fighting chance to inhabit our waters for generations to come,” she said.

Chinook salmon, which make up 80% of the diet of Southern Resident orcas, have been in steep decline due to the presence of dams, loss of habitat and fishing pressure. According to Oceana, two-thirds of Southern Resident orcas’ pregnancies failed between 2008 and 2014 because mothers were unable to get enough salmon.

In addition, many females in the remaining population are nearing the age where they will no longer be able to reproduce. Only 60% of baby orcas survive their first few years of life and those odds decline when the calves are unable to get enough nutrition, Oceana said.

Southern Resident orcas have been federally listed as endangered since 2005. The new Oregon listing requires the state to consider measures to help, including increases to salmon abundance, new attempts to prevent oil spills, limits on pollutants in state waters and setting guidelines on vessel traffic.